Backdoor users on Linux with uid=0

On Unix/Linux users with a uid=0 are root. This means any security checks are bypassed for them.

An adversary might go ahead and create a new account, or set an existing account’s user identifier (uid) or group identifier to zero.

A simple way to do this is to update /etc/passwd of an account, or use usermod -u 0 -o mallory.

Let’s create a new user named mallory:

wuzzi@saturn:/$ sudo adduser mallory   
wuzzi@saturn:/$ cat /etc/passwd | grep mallory

Observe that the user has the uid 1001.

Next, set the uid to 0 using usermod:

wuzzi@saturn:/$ sudo usermod -u 0 -o mallory
wuzzi@saturn:/$ cat /etc/passwd | grep mallory

Finally, use the account and observe what happens:

wuzzi@saturn:/$ su mallory 
Password: [....]
root@saturn:/# whoami


Detection and Threat Hunting

Depending on your central log collection tools, all you need to do is look for :0: in the /etc/passwd file for either user or group ids. On the command line on a host this can be done with something like:

$ cat /etc/passwd | grep ":0:"

The result of this command will look similar to:

uid 0 backdoor


Its unlikely, but if you encounter a BSD system you might actually see two user’s with uid 0. One is name root and the other one toor. So on non-BSD systems a nifty attacker might attempt to trick Unix administrators and hide an additional backdoor user with the name toor.

In case you find backdoor users in your environment - I’d be curious to know.


Be aware that uid=0 are root users. It’s hardcoded.

One would expect the system to break, but things seem to continue working fine. I always assumed that the configuration is not really supported, but malware and malicious users rarely care about supported configurations.